A typical South Indian meal called Saapadu consists of rice with other typical Tamilian dishes served on a banana leaf. Banana leaf as it gives different flavor and taste to the food. A sweet, normally Paayasam is usually served as a dessert to finish the meal. Coffee and tea are the staple drinks. Rice is present at every meal in Madurai, either as plain white rice, or flavoured rice such as lemon rice, puliyodharai, tomato rice and biryani, or in the form of idli, dosa, paniyaram, appam or idiyappam. The favoured rice, even while preparing biryani, is the local Ponni, and not Basmati.
“Madurai’s food is a happy union of all these influences, mainly that of Chettinad cuisine, known for its fiery flavours.” – says Charukesu Ramadurai.
Madurai has always been a city of commerce, with trade relations extending to the Romans and Greeks. When Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited the city in 302 BC, he wrote about it magnificence. Arab merchants and Sufi saints also made their ay to Madurai to trade with the Pandya kings since 900 AD. Closer home, the local Chettiar community traded extensively with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Singapore and Malaysia. Further, silk weavers and merchants from Saurashtra in Gujarat have made Madurai home for several centuries now.
“My last two visits to Madurai in search of another local specialty proved futile. (Ratha Poriyal or stir-fried blood is still served in some homes in southern Tamil Nadu.) This is goat’s blood, quickly stir-fried with finely chopped onions, green chillies and seasoning. Many restaurants pulled it off their menu to ensure they don’t lose their halal certification. Madurai is a Food Lover’s City” says Ashwin Rajagopalan
The Madurai biryani is spicier than the more famous Hyderabadi and Lucknowi versions. The Muslims are believed to have brought it in, along with Madurai’s most popular roadside beverage — the jigarthanda. Literally meaning ‘heart cooler’, it is a tall glass of sarsaparilla syrup (locally known as nannari), almond jelly (also called badam pisin), sugar, milk and ice cream, with a garnish of almonds and pistas. Madurai is inordinately fond of fried snacks, with shops proudly carrying names like ‘Tamizhaga Ennai Palagaram’ (Tamil Nadu Oil Snacks). And desserts are considered incomplete unless they come dripping with ghee, such as the gooey Thirunelveli halwa at Prema Vilas Lala Sweet Shop.
Madurai Idli Shop is a mandatory pit stop for visitors to this city, with idlis that are said to be as soft as Madurai’s famous malligaipoo (jasmine). Definitely try their onion uttapam, topped generously with a dollop of Amul butter or ghee and small shallots. Ignore the sambhar and focus on the four varieties of chutney served on the plantain leaf. Drop in at the no-frills Amma Mess at Thallakulam for a hardcore carnivorous meal; try the chicken dosa, prawn biryani and mutton kola (fried mutton balls). Beat the heat with Bovonto, the local grape-cola or Nannari sherbet, both available at all roadside stalls. At the end of the day, wash it all down with a glass of Jil Jil Jigarthanda at the ‘Famous Jigarthanda’ shop on East Marrat Street.